It's easy for Minnesota Vikings fans to fall into a cynical rut—they may have the most snakebitten franchise in history. Nevertheless, fans should feel optimistic about the Vikings' chances for the 2012 season.
Followers of the Vikings will see improvement in critical starting positions on offense, greater depth at defense and better schematic design on both sides of the ball.
This isn't to say that the Vikings will win the Super Bowl, or even that they will make the playoffs, simply that they will outperform early preseason expectations.
Fans have been treated to the drumbeat of mediocrity from national sportswriters about the Vikings' poor chances as they head into the new season, from 3-13 and 5-11 predictions here at Bleacher Report, to bottom-three rankings at national outlets like ESPN and CBS.
The good news is that those familiar with the Vikings well know that the team has much more upside than most give it credit for.
The Vikings have made gains in important starting positions on offense
Training camp has made clear that the Vikings are not just well aware of their faults, but are actively working to correct them.
Poor quarterback and line play marred the offense in the 2011 season, and the Vikings have made significant upgrades in both of these areas.
Matt Kalil has so far proven that he is every bit the franchise left tackle his proponents made him out to be, regularly containing Jared Allen in camp and doing well against the last year's best situational pass rusher—Aldon Smith—in the preseason, only giving up one pressure and no sacks.
Overall, training camp has revealed significant improvements across the board for the offense, and in particular the offensive line. Charlie Johnson at left guard may not quite be an upgrade over an aging Steve Hutchinson, but his faster footwork will open up the edges in the running game and may allow Toby Gerhart to be a threat in the alleys as well as between the tackles.
John Sullivan has turned out to be a Top 5 center in the league, meaning that the gaps on Christian Ponder's blind side should not be an issue—each of these players has been doing well at camp. Sullivan continues to impress in training camp, and has had virtually no problems.
The biggest questions on the offensive line are at right guard and at right tackle, but Brandon Fusco is pushing out aggressively in camp, and has a handle on his previous discipline issues.
Fusco is playing smarter and lining up alongside Sullivan has clearly improved his pickups. Brandon is already mean and strong, so smart play may make this 2011 pick the steal of the sixth round (unless it turns out to be Washington's Evan Royster).
Phil Loadholt is a mystery that won't be solved until the season starts, but he seems to have resolved the tension between his disparate play. In 2011, he was one of the league's best run blockers, and worst pass blockers. In 2010, he was great in protection but couldn't grade the road for Peterson.
He's improved his hand technique, and his notoriously heavy feet don't seem to be bothering offensive line coach Jeff Davidson anymore.
Ponder looks much improved as well, going through his reads faster and doing a much better job stepping up into the pocket. He has developed noticeably better torque in his throwing motion, and is much more comfortable with rhythm and timing.
Fans have no need to be skeptical of the reports coming out of training camp, either. A bevy of statistical evidence indicates that quarterbacks go through massive improvement in their second year. Throw in the fact that Ponder is getting first-team reps in camp for the first time, and observers have every reason to trust the reports coming in during the offseason.
Aside from the offensive line, the Vikings have improved at receiver as well, adding an electric Jerome Simpson to the roster. While the preseason drops from Simpson, Jenkins and Stephen Burton have fans worried, they should know that this isn't consistent. Simpson has looked nothing short of fantastic at split end, and looks like the downfield threat the Vikings signed him to be.
Burton may be the biggest surprise, however, and he has improved by leaps and bounds. Never the quickest receiver, Burton can still play at either split end or flanker and generates separation with his much improved route running and already good strength.
He has had sure hands and a good understanding of the offense. Burton is another potentially good late-round pick for the Vikings.
With two solid receivers and one great receiver, the Vikings will enter the new season with more weapons then they had before.
Finally, the Vikings' tight ends look better than ever. Shiancoe may have been a reliable tight end, but releasing Shiancoe and adding Ellison may give the Vikings greater playmaking ability than before.
Ellison's surprising pass-catching prowess makes him the most versatile tight end the team has seen in a while, and the winner of the close battle between Reisner and Shuler will produce another reliable pass catching option.
Kyle Rudolph wants to play like Rob Gronkowski and certainly has the frame for it. In order to be the dominant tight end that Gronkowski turned into, he would need to improve his blocking, but it's clear that Rudolph seems to have the catch radius and reliability of the vaunted tight end from New England. The NFL Network even called Rudolph the MVP of camp.
And Vikings fans well know about Peterson's inhuman progress in recovery, while Gerhart looks like a good NFL starter regardless.
The Vikings have improved depth at defense
While many fans may want to see an overhaul on defense, the pieces for a solid defense are in place. More importantly, the Vikings' greatest weakness wasn't a particular position, but ineffective backups. Not only did the defensive line do poorly with its rotation, but forced absences at cornerback exposed what may have been the worst secondary in the league.
Luckily for fans, the Vikings have not only been able to look forward to the return of its starting cornerbacks, but they have developed a great deal of depth as well.
The signings of Bobby Felder, Chris Carr, Zack Bowman and Reggie Jones complement the third-round pick of Josh Robinson and punt-return specialist Marcus Sherels. Beyond that, converted safety Robert Blanton may be able to play cornerback in an emergency.
This is a significant improvement over an injured Cedric Griffin, an overmatched Asher Allen or street free agent Benny Sapp.
In fact, the skill level of the cornerbacks at camp creates a good problem for general manager Rick Spielman and defensive coordinator Alan Williams. They'll have tough decisions at this position, and Williams' prediction that their cuts will play for other teams is well warranted.
The team is undeniably weak at safety still, even with the addition of rookie Harrison Smith, but the departure of Husain Abdullah, Jarrad Page, and Tyrell Johnson has opened up space for raw developmental prospect Blanton and a swiftly improving Mistral Raymond.
The Vikings are strongest at defensive end, and their depth chart here is almost as impressive as their starters. Everson Griffen and D'Aundre Reed have both showed the ability to fill in well, and have gotten better in this offseason. Trevor Guyton also seems to be outperforming his draft status and could give the Vikings latitude on the defensive line.
Minnesota could of course also stand to improve their starting defensive tackles, and questions surround Kevin Williams' age and Letroy Guion's consistency. But just behind those two are backups who have improved in the offseason, and may have the talent to be considered marginal starters on other teams.
Fred Evans has always been a physical wonder, but he—like Guion—has been plagued with streakiness issues. Over the past two weeks, his focus has allowed him to be a significant force, and his game against San Francisco proved it. While not making an enormous impression against the starters, he dominated the backups.
Always first off the snap and consistently drawing double teams in that game, Fred may very well provide the type of line depth that he could not provide earlier.
Christian Ballard was considered to have first-round or second-round talent at defensive end, and fell to the fourth because of a positive marijuana test. His versatility has been exploited by the Vikings, and Ballard has gained weight in order to play backup to Kevin Williams as the 3-technique tackle.
Ballard won't be asked to stop the run very often, and his pass-rushing skills work well in his backup undertackle position. He will never replace Kevin Williams, but he will always be a threat to create pressure.
Naturally, the Vikings aren't blessed with extraordinary depth at every position, and linebackers are a clear concern.
Regardless, the depth at linebacker isn't nearly as worrisome as many make it out to be. Despite poor practice performance, Audie Cole and hard-hitter Solomon Elimimian both made waves in the preseason game against the 49ers, giving fans hope that middle linebacker may not be a lost cause if oft-injured Jasper Brinkley falls once more.
Beyond that, Tyrone McKenzie, Larry Dean, and Marvin Mitchell have all exceeded their expectations at camp. While none of them had a great game on Friday, the odds are that their positive performances at practice means that at least one of them is more skilled than their critics give them credit for.
There are more questions at linebacker than anything else, but it is clear that the Vikings have good depth along their defense, something that fans were reasonably unsure of before training camp started.
The Vikings are improving their offensive and defensive sets
Much was said of Bill Musgrave's two tight end offense when he was hired, but fans rarely saw the offense on the field. Instead, the Vikings were content keeping their best playmakers off the field and bringing in two tight ends on only about 35 percent of plays.
The Vikings did not do much to exploit matchups on the field offensively, and used players out of position (Michael Jenkins at split end comes to mind). Beyond that, play-calling was never very creative and the offense regularly featured the same plays, like bootlegs with a tight end running the dig—something defenses keyed in on.
Minnesota was not much better on the other side of the ball, playing vanilla defenses with soft underneath zones on an extraordinary number of passing downs. Pagac's calls were blamed for a number of blown leads.
That, and the players refused to listen to his calls, and instead ran their own plays.
The most exciting changes are happening with Musgrave and his offense, where the Vikings intend to create mismatches through a true use of a two tight-end set.
Comparisons to the Patriots' Gronkowski and Hernandez not withstanding, the offense has been designed to keep defenses guessing. The notable improvement's in Rudolph's blocking, as well as the addition of Ellison, will allow the Vikings to play their tight ends in any of the skill positions.
The Ponder-Rudolph connection alone is a reason to be excited. Ponder has connected well to Rudolph over the course of camp, and the offensive play-calling plays no small part.
Moreover, Rudolph, Ellison, and veteran John Carlson have all lined up as fullback, and each tight end is expected to play in the slot or outside. Coupled with some sets where fullbacks or halfbacks have been split wide, defenses will not be able to key in on offensive intentions by the personnel grouping, like they could last year.
The Vikings have gone through a number of offensive installations at camp that encourage this sort of deception—deception that they carried with them into the preseason, by refusing to play their normal offensive formations.
Given the type of installation the Vikings have gone through and the nature of the offense, expect to see much more interesting plays.
The Vikings defense isn't looking for unique formations this year, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for optimism.
Frazier, who's well involved with the defense, is looking to find ways to incorporate more man coverage concepts in their traditional Tampa-2, in order to take advantage of their cornerbacks' strengths and potential for creativity that they can provide to the defense.
This sort of creativity is critical not just to keep offenses guessing, but also to leverage the advantages provided by cornerbacks like Chris Cook, who excels in man-to-man assignments.
Beyond that, Alan Williams' insistence that all defensive rookies prove themselves in his system before playing them is a sign that discipline and focus—two traits sorely lacking on the field last year—will find ways to reassert itself.
While the offense may be trying to push the envelope and expand their boundaries, the defense's focus on the fundamentals are just what it needs. Unable to execute the Tampa-2, the defense failed at limiting big gains from small passes.
The focus on the basics may leave the defense open to dissection, but the limited creativity from changing coverage schemes can resolve many of the ways offenses intend to attack the traditional Tampa-2 assignments.
Further, the coaches are open to providing additional wrinkles to the defense at any moment, including putting an athletic pass-rushing specialist in as a linebacker, or deploying a defensive line of pure pass-rushers to mimic the Giants' NASCAR package.
Despite the fact that the Vikings have ended their Griffen experiment at linebacker, the cautious innovation that Minnesota is pursuing is excellent reason for optimism.
While watching a rebuilding team in action is never pleasant, tracking key improvements can often be an exciting task for the discerning fan. The Vikings will provide that excitement, and any loyal follower of the team can be confident not just that the Vikings will improve their record from their abysmal showing in 2011, but that they're providing the foundation for a successful franchise well into the future.
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